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Mudville: May 18, 2021 9:27 am PDT
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Ron Kittle: Remember My Name

Ron Kittle is amused by the fact that he remains the answer to a trivia question. That he was able to become the answer to that question is more than a little stunning, though, especially when you consider what Kittle had to go through to become the last man to hit 50 home runs in a Minor League Baseball season.

The former White Sox slugger and American League Rookie-of-the-Year winner [1983] hit 50 home runs for the Edmonton Trappers of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League in 1982 and now represents what is likely an extinct species. While a handful of players have cracked the 40 home-run barrier since, no one has seriously threatened Kittle’s place among trivia buffs.

“There was a game card that someone sent me that that was one of the trivia questions,” said Kittle, who turned 63 earlier this month. “I’ve only seen them a couple of times. He asked me if I could sign it. I don’t walk around saying that I hit 50 home runs, though.

“People say that I hit 50 home runs in the Pacific Coast League. They say the ball travels out there. Well, if that’s the case then how come no one else has done it? I didn’t go there to set records, I just wanted to play ball and that’s what I did.”

Kittle did a little more than just play ball, though. Not only did he lead the minors in homers, outdistancing Ken Phelps [Double-A Wichita, 46] and Greg Brock [Triple-A Albuquerque, 44], he led the minors in RBIs [144], outdistancing the aforementioned pair, who had 141 and 138 runs batted in, respectively.

Throw in the seven RBI’s he collected with the White Sox following a September call-up and Kittle led all of professional baseball in RBIs that season.

Oh, and let’s not forget the fact that he hit .345, just missing out on the PCL Triple Crown.

“I just wanted to hit the ball hard, hit line drives and tear the pitcher’s face off. It’s not too hard; just hit the ball hard.

“There are a few guys who have come close but I can’t pinpoint why they haven’t [hit 50],” Kittle said. “Maybe it’s expansion or moving minor league players up quickly so they aren’t playing full seasons. When I was playing, you had to pay your dues and see if you could get better to go to the big leagues.

“I never honestly tried to hit homers, though, except for a couple of times in my entire life. I just wanted to hit the ball hard, hit line drives and tear the pitcher’s face off. It’s not too hard; just hit the ball hard. And that year I had a pretty good year on every part of the field. I didn’t think one thing about it [hitting 50]. I just went to the park and I wanted to do well. I hit homers against good pitchers. The ones who couldn’t throw a strike were harder to hit.”

There have been 12 players to lead the minors with 40 or more homers since 1982 but none have come closer than Ryan Howard [2004] and Christ Hatcher [1998], each of whom hit 46. Howard was blocked by Jim Thome in Philadelphia and actually requested a trade in the spring of 2005 before getting a mid-season call-up. He went on to hit 58 homers and win the NL MVP in 2006. The 46 homers were the high point for Hatcher, a career minor leaguer who appeared in eight Major League games.

Kittle would fall somewhere between the two in terms of his Major League career, never winning an MVP but enjoying a 10-year career in which he hit 176 homers, 140 of which for the White Sox. That he got that far is impressive considering where he started.

ROUGH BEGINNINGS AND A BAD BREAK

Kittle went undrafted out of high school and was doing iron work when he saw that the Dodgers were hosting an open tryout close to his home in nearby LaPorte, Indiana. He was the only player out of the more than 250 hopefuls who was asked to stick around and take some more batting practice afterwards. He wowed the L.A. scouts, hitting one ball clear out of Ken Schrieber Field. It didn’t take long for him to sign a $5,000 contract.

“When I came out of the tryout camp in 1976 with the Dodgers, all their rosters were already filled,” Kittle said. “I couldn’t do anything but do iron work so I went back for spring training in 1977 and I had a good spring. I think the only flaw I had was getting bit by a spider. I started the season in Clinton, Iowa [of the Midwest League].”

The excitement of beginning his professional career was quickly dashed, though. Kittle made his mark immediately, doubling in his first professional at-bat. Future L.A. Dodger and World Series-winning manager Mike Scioscia, who was also Kittle’s roommate, followed with a single and Kittle went racing home, sliding into a life-altering moment.

“I slid home but it was a high throw and the catcher comes down and lands on my neck,” Kittle said. “He broke my neck, though I didn’t know it right away. I was partially paralyzed and it was two or three weeks before I could do anything. I was hurting all the time. Everything hurt except my neck.”

Kittle was out of action for several weeks and despite being in constant pain actually came back and played baseball again that season. He appeared in 22 games for Clinton, hitting .189 with three RBI before he was sent down to Lethbridge of the Rookie-Level Pioneer League, where he hit .250 with seven homers in 34 games.

Kittle tried playing again in 1978, returning to Clinton but was released by the Dodgers after appearing in 13 games. He went back home, crushed at the prospect of having lost a potential career. While he was home, though, he went to see a specialist in Chicago, who told him that he had three crushed vertebrae and a cracked spinal cord. Surgery followed in which the three vertebrae were fused and a halo was screwed into his skull.

“The doctor said to me, what the heck are you doing playing baseball?” Kittle said. “When you’re an 18-year-old kid, you want to play but that’s kind of hard to do with a halo on your head. But I got a second chance.”

ALMOST WRECKING VEECK

Kittle began working out and rehabbing once he was up and around, determined to get back onto the field despite the doctor’s proclamations that he would never play again. He bulked up and by the next spring he weighed nearly 250 pounds and was playing for Chicago AHEPA, a semipro team in Illinois, looking like the slugger that would someday terrorize PCL pitchers. He was a switch hitter prior to the injury but was forced to only hit right-handed afterwards because he was he was unable to turn his head to the right while hitting left-handed.

It was during a game in Midlothian, Illinois, that Kittle’s life took another unexpected turn. He hit a crushing home run, some 550 feet out of the park and onto I-294. The ball bounced in front of a moving car.  White Sox owner Bill Veeck, probably the greatest showman the game has ever known, and former White Sox great Billy Pierce – who won 186 games in 13 seasons with Chicago – were in the car. The pair got off at the next exit and headed back to the field, determined to see how that ball had landed on the highway.

“They got to the field and I was hiding because I thought I broke a windshield,” Kittle said. “That was on a Tuesday. On Friday I had a personal tryout at Comiskey Park and I put on a show that day [homering on 12 of 25 pitches]. The last one went on the roof. Billy Pierce was credited as the signing scout and all he did was drive around with Bill Veeck. After Billy died, his son gave me the plaque they gave him for signing and scouting Ron Kittle.

“I can remember it like yesterday, in detail. It’s pretty phenomenal. Brooks Boyer is the senior vice president of sales and marketing for the White Sox and his son played at that field [in Midlothian]. He said to me, ‘You hit a ball over that light tower? No way.’ More people know that story better than I do. I was just [relieved] about not having to pay for a window.”

Kittle returned to baseball full time the following spring and split 1979 between the Midwest and Southern Leagues, where he combined to hit .267 with eight homers and 38 RBI in 309 plate appearances. He hit 16 homers, had 65 RBI and hit .314 the following year while splitting time between the Midwest and Eastern Leagues before hitting his stride in 1981.

The Glens Falls White Sox rode Kittle’s bat to the best record in the Eastern League in 1981. He led the league in homers [40] and RBIs [103] while hitting .326 in 109 games, just missing out on winning a Triple Crown. He earned league MVP honors, though, and set the stage for his historic 1982 season.

KITTLE BECOMES THE EDMONTON EXPRESS

While 1982 proved to be the best of Kittle’s career, at least statistically, it would also prove to be bittersweet at times. Kittle showed no signs of slowing down as spring training began. He estimates that he hit between 10-12 homers in just 25 or so at-bats and was confident that he’d be in Chicago on Opening Day.

“I had a phenomenal spring and I really thought I made the team and then nope, you have to go Triple-A,” Kittle said. “You have the mindset that if you do well, you’ll climb the ladder so I wasn’t happy but I did what I had to do.”

That was Kittle’s first disappointment that season but not his only one. As he scorched his way through the season, the call he waited for never came. The White Sox had acquired Steve Kemp in an off-season trade with the Tigers and the former All-Star was holding what would be Kittle’s spot on the Major League roster. Had Kemp struggled in Chicago, Kittle might have gotten promoted but he ended up hitting .286 with 19 homers and 98 RBIs, blocking Kittle for much of the season.

“I kind of thought I’d be going up,” Kittle said. “I had a lot of conversations with my manager [Gordy Lund] at the time and he kept telling me you have to be patient. There is someone in front of you that’s making a lot of money. About that time was when I realized it’s a business instead of a game.”

The actual game, however, never seemed easier for Kittle. He averaged a homer very 9.4 at-bats and in addition to his run production, he led the league in runs scored [121]. What’s most amazing is that he only appeared in 109 games, putting up those numbers in just 389 at-bats. He broke his thumb while playing in Portland and missed several weeks that summer before returning to the lineup. Otherwise, who knows how many home runs he would have had?

Ron Kittle is restrained after getting hit by a pitch by the Orioles' Mike Flanagan in Game 3 of the 1983 ALCS (PHOTO: John Swart / AP)

Bill Davidson, the sports editor of The Edmonton Sun, told Sports Illustrated at the time that he was “The Wayne Gretzky of the summer.”  That certainly was the case as Kittle impressed his teammates and the opposition on a nightly basis.

“Ron was obviously a special talent at the time,” said Jay Loviglio, who was the Edmonton second baseman in 1982. “Ron had this ability to hit home runs. A lot of the guys played with him the year before in Glens Falls when he hit 40 home runs so they were familiar with him. When he came up to hit, we all got up on the fence; we didn’t want to miss it. He didn’t just hit home runs, he hit monster shots. He had light tower power. It was crazy.

“There was one he hit in Phoenix where the field was huge but the air was lighter. He hit one over the fence, almost to the street. I thought “you got to be kidding me”. That’s just not possible. When you play in the minors, you just don’t see the ball hit that far. The furthest ball I had seen hit prior to that was Don Baylor, who hit an upper deck shot off Jim Kern in Comiskey Park. That was the furthest I had seen hit at the time and Ron was right there with all those guys.”

Kittle remained hot through the end of August. He had 49 homers heading into the last game of the season against Portland on Sept. 1 but Kittle said he never pressed. He was more interested in just playing baseball than focusing on statistics or records.

“I only thought about one thing and that was going to the park and doing well,” Kittle said. “Greg Brock and I were neck and neck for most of the year and at 40-something the media brought it to my attention. I never played like that, though. I just didn’t think about it.”

Opposing pitchers were thinking about it, though. Kittle said he was getting thrown at behind his back and everywhere else out of the strike zone as pitcher feared he would take him deep.

“I was swinging at balls out of the zone just to get a hit,” Kittle said. “That also happened in Double-A the year before when I hit 40. You swing at pitches over your head just to get more pitches in the count. As it was, after I hit 50, I batted again and took a bases-loaded walk. But I was trying to hit the ball again.

“You saw it in the Major Leagues with [Mark] McGwire and [Sammy] Sosa. Pitchers don’t want to throw strikes at all. It’s hard when you want to help the team win, especially since I wasn’t leading off an inning all the time.”

But Portland’s pitcher Butch Edge, who was the sixth overall pick in the 1974 Amateur Draft, couldn’t keep the ball far enough away from Kittle, who turned a 2-2 slider into a piece of trivia. Kittle said that Edge met him at home plate shook his hand and even signed the ball for him.

“I never thought I could hit 50 home runs and I never thought of it as something I could ever do again,” Kittle said. “On Facebook or social media, people will still bring it up, saying I remember seeing you in Tacoma or some other town. I think it’s nice. I’m excited that I did it.”

POST-50 AND BEYOND

Kittle would get his call-up following that final game and hit .241 with a homer and seven RBI in 29 at-bats for Chicago. He was also named as the Player of the Year and was presented with the award by Gretzky.

Kemp was gone by the following spring, leaving Kittle’s path to the lineup clear and he took advantage of the situation, winning the AL Rookie of the Year after hitting .254 with 35 homers and 100 RBI. That would prove to be his best season in the Major Leagues, though. He never hit that many homers again, though he did have 32 the following year, and never again drove in more than 74 runs.

Overall, Kittle put together a solid 10-year career, spending time with Chicago, the Yankees, Indians and Orioles, finishing with 176 home runs.

“I never had a chance to play healthy,” Kittle said. “After my rookie year, I jumped into a brick wall and demolished my shoulder. I couldn’t lift my arm to swing but I still tried to play. I always thought I was better than someone even though I was hurt. It’s instilled in you as a kid. I was never satisfied when I played because I always wanted to do better.”

Kittle did a little managing in the lower leagues after retiring but never took to it the way he did as a player. Now, he is an ambassador for the White Sox, helping the team in a variety of goodwill capacities. He is also the owner of Ron Kittle, Inc. He creates benches, bats, ironwork, all works of art that are unique and baseball related. You can check out his work at RonKittle.com.

And, a new stadium is now being built in Edmonton and the owners have requested permission from Kittle to put up a sculpture of him. He has given them the OK, but still needs to see if the White Sox need to give their permission.

“[After 1982] I never thought of 50 as something I could do again,” Kittle said. “If things are right, it’s easy to hit 50. I didn’t have a home-run swing, though. I just hit the ball hard.”

Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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